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Missional Music
by Captain Olivia Munn-Shirsath


Congregational singing


There are countless Christian denominations. Within these denominations there are countless different styles of worship. Woven through it all, in everything from high liturgy to casual house churches, from organs to guitars to brass bands – music is a part of church. There’s a reason why almost all church services around the globe include congregational singing.


Music has power. Listening to music can be powerful, but there is something even more mysteriously profound when you open your own mouth and sing. I can think back and recall the number of times that a song has touched my soul and, without exaggeration, changed my life.


Martin Luther is credited for the birth congregational singing. For thousands of years music in church was performed by choirs, in Latin, while the lay people sat and listened. Music was present, but it did not belong to the congregation. Luther began writing clear lyrics in the common language, with singable melodies that were hard to forget. Now the Church is known as a people who sing.


Protest style


Luther preferred songs that had straightforward, bold theology, rather than flowery language and soft imagery. His lyrics include themes such as the coming empire, fortresses, fire, pain, and the devil.  He preferred the pronouns “us” and “we” over “I” and “me”. These were songs written for the people.


Some historians have highlighted that Martin Luther’s songs were composed in the style of protest songs – catchy and punchy. This is true of both his lyrics and his melodies. Katie Schuermann says, “His melodies were provocative, utilizing unexpected intervals of fourths and fifths as well as syncopated rhythms which jolted and jarred the listener”. These songs were not written to only be a comfort to the persecuted revolutionaries, but also to stir the crowds to rise up.


Education and intimacy


Luther himself said, "Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds and spirits. A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs!" This man was clearly passionate about music! Songwriting was not merely a hobby for him, but something he was deeply convicted about.

He knew the truth that songs are influential – more so than spoken text alone. They can convey fundamental Biblical insights to young people – even before they are able to read. In the year 1500 this was not just about children, as 85% of German population was illiterate – but they could still learn a song. The good news of grace through faith could be more effectively communicated through these new hymns than through hundreds of sermons. In fact, Luther’s songs would buzz from town to town faster than he could, and faster than the Catholic authorities could shut down. In Magdeburg, Germany, traveling singers armed with Luther’s anthems converted the entire town two months before he even arrived.


Secondly, Luther knew that singing is an act of intimacy. It is more than a method of learning the Bible in our brains, it also bares the soul. The singer exposes herself and her emotions and convictions before the Holy Spirit and before fellow human beings present. When you sing, there is nowhere to hide.


A Mighty Fortress


One of the most familiar examples of Luther’s music is the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” This hymn has been translated into more languages than any other hymn in history, including over 70 English translations. This rousing song is considered the battle hymn of the Reformation, inspired by Psalm 46.  “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.”


What strength we receive as we open our lips and confidently sing of the ultimate fate of Satan. Although we are opposed by our enemy daily, the people of Christ will always stand, and we will not fear. And as we stand, let us sing.









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